“V” for Vendetta 

Vouchers may not be the best alternative, but let’s see if they work.

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The white-hot school voucher debate has everything that makes the heads of even the most diehard public-policy wonks hurt.

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We’ve got a dizzying array of statistical studies and analyses, arm-twisting lobbyists, and boatloads of emotion. We’ve also got the dying wish of Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Freedom, the high priest of the school-choice movement.

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Now that our Legislature has narrowly approved school vouchers, further debate seems a waste of time. The Utah Office of Education is no doubt busy preparing rules for voucher determination it must have ready by the middle of this May. You can already hear whole flotillas of education companies crunching numbers for reaping the Utah voucher dollar.

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To paraphrase a well-known R.E.M song, it’s the end of public education in Utah as we know it. Do we feel fine?

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Before getting rhetorical, let’s cut to the chase. Out of the hulking mass of debate surrounding this issue, one irony seems clear. After years of complaining about low teacher salaries, the lowest per-student spending in the country and unmanageable class size, the state of Utah stands poised to spend more money on education than ever thanks to this contentious bill. A lot of voucher proponents deny this, stating that when a voucher costs only 60 percent of what a public education costs, the public will save money. However, fiscal analysts have estimated that the first year of vouchers will cost $9 million, followed by a $12 million bill the second year, and with mushrooming costs on into perpetuity. Astute lawmakers during last week’s debate and vote knew that unless and until the state’s public school system eventually bites the dust under the competitive pressures of vouchers, taxpayers will effectively fund two education systems.

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Voucher proponents love pointing to Milwaukee and Cleveland schools as models of success for their beloved system. What we in Utah tend to forget and may come to regret now that vouchers have arrived is that no state has as many students as we do. In a short eight years, we’ll have 20 percent more students than we have now. How curious that our lawmakers squint at funding our current system but will risk funding another, new system. The fact that this new bill passed by one vote should concern us, not comfort us. Narrow legislative victories more often reflect confusion, not clarity.

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Having dealt with the issue of money, what about the quality of education under a voucher system? Voucher proponents use free-market economics when arguing their points. Isn’t it interesting, they point out, that our K-through-12 public-education system has become the world’s laughing stock of primary and secondary education because it’s an inflexible monopoly? Meanwhile, our colleges and universities, which compete for students and tailor curriculum to students’ needs, rank at the top of the world. It’s a powerful argument.

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Anyone in his or her right mind knows this country’s public-education system needs an intensive, thorough overhaul. “America’s high schools are obsolete,” Bill Gates said, in now famous words. “Our high schools'even when they’re working exactly as designed'cannot teach our kids what they need to know today.” Gates is no scholar or educational specialist, but he has done a lot of hiring. He, and a lot of other employers, fear for our country.

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How do we get that overhaul? Voucher proponents say it’s a lot easier and more efficient to let the consumer end of the market, students and their parents, bring that change about by spending their education dollars where they want, for what they want. Break the public-school monopoly, and the market will provide. Here in Utah, that brings out all sorts of fears. Some of us remember Utah polygamist John Singer, who in 1979, pulled his children out of public schools because he didn’t want them taught from a history text featuring photographs of white and black children playing together.

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How many Utahns of any religious stripe want their money spent on private schools specializing in religious curriculums? How will this contribute to our already fragile sense of collective identity as a nation? Few remaining public institutions shape our children’s identity as Americans first, before they grow to think of themselves as Mormons, Baptists, Catholics or Muslims later. For all its failings, public education accomplishes that much.

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On the other hand, the presence of LDS seminaries across the street from so many public schools tells me the vast majority of Utah parents and their children just want a better education, not more religious instruction inside schools themselves. More often than not, it’s about SAT scores, not scripture.

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In many ways, Utah’s public schools aren’t nearly as bad as some would have you believe. As reported recently, Utah ranked third nationally in the percentage of students passing at least one AP test. Do we need vouchers to top that? Perhaps they can.

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Call me chicken, if you will, for refusing a firm stand on this contentious issue. It’s just that I find it hard to grant teachers and school administrators their frustration over an underfunded system, then deny parents and employers their frustration over an ailing educational system. Seldom do two frustrations cross the finish line at the same time, then shake hands. The frustration of parents won.

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Any number of alternatives to vouchers could have been proposed. We could realign our schools closer to the European model, which diverts students early on into different curriculums according to their skills and interests, with a lot less time wasted for all involved.

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Problem is, the only proposed alternative to our current system was vouchers. Now that they’ve arrived, let’s see if we can make them work.

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